Don’t expect major changes

by John Hawkins | December 29, 2006 9:22 am

Donald Lambro[1] touches today on what I think few people understand about the Congress. Our Founding Fathers deliberately created a system of checks and balances to make sure that momentary passions did not force through bad laws. They gave powers to the minority to block such actions. And, over the years, the Congress, particularly the Senate, has evolved its own sets of procedures to give more power to individual legislators to block bills from becoming law. So, don’t expect any massive change from the Democrats taking over the Congress.

But after the 100 hours of severely limited parliamentary procedures has played out, what then? That’s where prospects look bleak.

House-passed legislation goes over to the Senate, known in some disgruntled circles on Capitol Hill as “the black hole,” or “the roach motel,” where numerous bills go in but few come out.

The Senate’s rules, dominated by unanimous-consent agreements, are far different from the House. One senator can put a hold on a bill for just about any reason or block a measure from a vote for an almost indefinite period. Even on those bills that may make it to the floor, one senator or a handful of senators can demand that the majority, if there is one, must come up with a supermajority of 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to full and formal consideration.

Even if you succeed in passing the Senate version, the obstacles don’t end there. It must be sent to a House-Senate conference where a group of appointed lawmakers negotiate to iron out differences. Often, as was the case with last year’s competing illegal immigration bills, one chamber (in this case, the House) can refuse to go to conference, dooming any further action. Many, if not most, bills coming out of conferences are voted on, but they can run into the same obstacles they had to clear in the first go-round. All of these legislative, procedural and parliamentary hurdles are hard enough to overcome. In a narrowly divided, deeply polarized House and Senate, as the 110th Democratic Congress will be, compromises will be doubly difficult to achieve.

For younger observers of our system, forget “I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill” civics and realize how difficult it is for anything to go through the entire process and get signed into law. Our system is set up so that it is very difficult to pass any provision that doesn’t enjoy wide public support. If any one group strongly opposes an idea and is willing to fight against it, it is almost impossible to enact that law.

Our country is deeply divided on issues and that is why it has been difficult to pass big changes. So don’t expect the Democrats to be able to take over Congress and start enacting their dream legislation. It is much easier to block and play defense against the majority than to pass something through the entire legislative procedure. If the Republicans in Congress stand firm in their beliefs of what is best for the country, they can block actions just as the Democrats were able to do when they were in the minority. And Bush might discover that he has a veto pen and be willing to use it since he doesn’t have to worry about running for another election.

Once the Democrats find that they can’t pass legislation, they will focus on the things that they can do. They can hold hearings. They can call in administration figures for all sorts of investigations. They can block nominations. They have more power to pass budget provisions that can’t be filibustered than to enact legislation. So, as Lambro says, don’t expect major legislative action after their first 100 hours of pushing through easy provisions. After that, expect a return to the days of gridlock and recriminations. It may not be the most efficient system of government, but it is the one our Founders created to ensure that there not be big swings in action unless there was strong public support behind such actions.

Thank you very much to John Hawkins for inviting me to blog today. This post is cross-posted at my blog, Betsy’s Page.[2]

  1. Donald Lambro:,_prospects_look_bleak&ns=DonaldLambro&dt=12/29/2006&page=full&comments=true
  2. Betsy’s Page.:

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